Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe Writes: I'm back from vacation and looking forward to your letters. It's always good to miss the extended power outage at your home while you were away. But then there's coming home to the contents of your refrigerator.
Q.Bi Man Unintentionally Opens Can of Worms With In-Laws: I have a rather unusual problem, and I don't feel I have anywhere to turn but you. I'm a 33-year-old man who's been married for seven years. The issue is, I am bi-sexual and have known so for quite some time. My quandary is, about a month ago I responded to a posting on Craigslist. It was from an older gentleman who, like myself, is bi and was looking for some discreet fun. In responding to the ad, I sent a faceless/headless picture of myself without a shirt on. He responded back to me with some pictures that were a bit more graphic and a phone number. Upon seeing the number, I became immediately undone. It was the cell phone number of my wife's dad—my father-in-law! Once I realized it was him, I never responded back to him. I received several e-mails subsequently asking me what was going on and if I was still interested. However, not only did he e-mail me from his personal e-mail address, stupidly, he used the joint one with my mother-in-law. Fast-forward a few weeks. My mother-in-law was checking e-mail and somehow found the exchange between my father-in-law and myself. Obviously, and justifiably, she has become hysterical. She found the e-mail that I sent to him (from an anonymous e-mail address) that had my picture. It gets worse; she told my wife and her sister and brother, and they are trying to figure out who this guy is who "seduced" dad. At this point, I am freaking out as my wife is wanting to see my picture, but her mother has not shown it to her yet. Do I bite the bullet and let the cat out of the bag that I am the two-home home wrecker, or should I let my wife and in-laws continue to play detective? I feel such guilt as my wife cries on my shoulder as she tells me the latest developments every day.
A: Your posting didn't say, "I like pina coladas, and getting lost in the rain," did it? Because your letters sounds like an updated version of the dreadful Rupert Holmes song. Though I would like to see a movie version of this in which Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller end up as the lovely couple, it's time for someone in this family to be straight about not being straight. If you are committed to sending out headless photos of yourself in order to cheat on your wife with other men, you have to tell her about this right now. It's not just because you want to get ahead of her having that flash of recognition when she sees the photo of the "seducer's" torso and recognizes the pattern of moles. It's because you are lying and cheating and potentially endangering your wife's health.
Q. Good News/Bad News:I am pregnant with twins after years of bad luck and infertility issues. I just started telling friends and family my happy news. One close friend who lives far away, I will actually see for a day this weekend. I am dreading telling her about the pregnancy, though, because I fear that for her, it's bad news. She is in her mid-30s and for the past few years has been living with a guy who refuses to ask her to marry him. She is negative toward others getting engaged and often avoids seeing her friends with kids. I know how hard it was to hear others announce pregnancies when we were trying for so long with no luck, so I can understand how hard it is for her to hear that her friends are moving forward with their life cycles while hers is stagnant. I was thinking of telling her over the phone before the weekend to avoid putting a damper on our one day together. What's the best way to deliver my good news/her bad news?
A: Sure, it reminds you of your own disappointment when others are experiencing things you long for, but I really dislike the idea that someone's good news is someone else's bad news—unless these people are in the finals for American Idol or presidential candidates. Your pregnancy is not robbing your friend of her chance for children of her own. And if she can't deal with others' good news, then she needs to address her own unhappiness, not resent her friends' good fortune. But definitely tell your friend over the phone. That will give her time to absorb your news and cancel the visit if she'd prefer to stew about her own unhappiness.
Q.Baby Arrival Etiquette: OK, so we're slackers. Big slackers. Our second arrived at the end of January. When I was home, I was on the ball and ordered lovely announcements featuring our new bundle and his big sister. They arrived. Then there was a problem with our printer (no way I'm hand-writing all those addresses). Then life. Needless to say, the announcements still haven't gone out. Aside from our son being able to hold this above our heads as "I'm the second child, you clearly don't care about me," my husband is adamant that we don't send them out anymore—past the expiration date, so to speak. I want to send them out, maybe going so far as to get a stamp made for the envelope "Yeah, we're late, but we still wanted to share," or at least scribble it on the outside. Gauche? Or OK to admit we're swamped?
A: This reminds me that there are still some birth announcements I didn't get out—however, I think once your daughter has been bat mitzvahed, you probably don't want people sending you onesies, anyway.
Since your son isn't old enough to walk to the announcements and say, "When are you sending these?" I think you're still OK. Why not have a little note printed up saying that while you're late with your good news, you wanted people to know about your new addition before you started paying college tuition for him.
Q.Party Pooper: I witnessed an uncomfortable situation over the weekend, and it's over and done with, but I was wondering if you had an opinion on what happened. Let's see if I can summarize briefly. I was at a kid's birthday, one of the mothers there was yelling at her two children the entire time. I overheard her saying the youngest has an ear infection—he looked to be about 2. From what I could see, the children were not misbehaving. And she wasn't just yelling at them; she was being very nasty—it was making me uncomfortable. Well, my friend's neighbor confronted her quietly about the way she was speaking to her kids, and it set her off. She started yelling and screaming about being a good mother and she wasn't going to have someone tell her how to raise her kids and she left. The scene that was caused was unfortunate because it upset some of the kids, but I was glad someone said something to her because she left, and I wasn't happy witnessing the way she was speaking to her children—although thinking about it now, if that's the way she was in front of others, she's probably worse in private. Do you think it was right of the woman to confront her, or should we have all just left it alone and let her scream at her children all day?
A: Brava to the woman who spoke up to the abusive mother. And not only was she right, but there needs to be serious follow-up. Of course, none of you feel you have any standing to intervene—you're not relatives, etc. But this unbalanced woman is psychologically shredding her kids, and something needs to be done. Perhaps if the kids are in a preschool, someone could speak to the head of the school and explain what you saw. A school administrator would have a legal (and moral) obligation to follow up. Let's hope that with the proper intervention, this woman can learn what it means to be a mother.
Q. Justified?: Please help me out here. My husband and I were virgins when we married in our early 20s. I love him, and our life together, but our sex life is not really worth the effort. He asks me what I want him to do, and I can't honestly tell him since he's the only man I've ever slept with. Fast forward 20 years, and I'm really wanting some kind of enjoyable sex for once in my life. I know that if I find what I'm looking for, I can't tell him, or it will end the marriage, but he won't discuss our sex life and has given up trying. I know I can keep my secret but wonder if I'm placing too much emphasis on the big "O."
A: If, when you finish the act, the thought bubble over each of your heads is, "Wow, that was even worse than last time," you are right to want to address this before you go out searching for someone who knows what's up when it comes to sex. Since many people are out there having good sex, it's time to procure some of their wisdom. I suggest you invest in a set of Better Sex videos for a starter. Watching others go at it, and talking to your husband about what you're seeing, will give you both pointers and a way to make this a topic you can explore together, instead of a source of shame and frustration.
Q. Abusive Mother:I've heard some interesting advice for dealing with abusive parents that you don't know. If you confront the parent about their parenting skills, you'll probably make them really mad. It is possible that they'll take this anger out on the child later, saying for instance, "You acted so badly that you embarrassed me in front of a stranger." If you can in some way distract the parent, it might be a better way to diffuse the situation. For instance, you could say, "Two-year-olds can be quite a handful, can't they?" And then once you have the mother engaged and not yelling at her child, you could say, "Sometimes when my 2-year-old acts up, I try this ..." and offer some gentle advice.
A: Good points here. Sometimes parents are just overwhelmed, and you're seeing them at a bad time. But sometimes you are seeing horrible parents in action. If this woman has a pattern of yelling at and demeaning her children, she needs more than a gentle pointer or two.
Q. Demanding Bride: I have a friend who has become a very demanding bride, requiring wardrobe changes between wedding events and gifts in the form of a cash honeymoon. I have to go to the wedding, but is this something that's OK these days, or should I say something? If so, how? If I knew how high-maintenance this was, I wouldn't have agreed to go in the first place.
A: When you say "requiring wardrobe changes between wedding events," I'm having the feeling you are not referring to the bride's many wardrobe changes but that she is treating her guests like movie extras and demanding all of you step up to meet her fashion requirements. The bride is free to demand anything—your PIN numbers, access to your 401(k)s—but none of you are obligated to respond. You're already committed to attending this wedding, so wear one lovely frock and give her a gift you feel comfortable with. If that isn't good enough for her, then rejoice that she will soon be a former friend.
Q. Yelling at Kids: I can tell you from personal experience that simply yelling at your children does not qualify as abuse. When I lived in Boston during grad school, I called protective services about the woman in the next apartment who spent the day yelling at her kids. I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I could report hearing her slap the kids or knew of evidence that she was neglecting them, the city could not do anything. The woman I spoke to told me that parents have a right to yell at their kids, and there's nothing she or I could do about it.
A: It's tragic that psychological destruction of your children is considered to be fine. Good for you for trying to help these poor children. I still think the people who have seen this woman in action should call school administrators, who can keep an eye out and possibly try to intervene.
Q. Nosy Relatives: Any advice on dealing with an intrusive sister-in-law? I like to have her, my brother, and their son over to use my pool, but she keeps going into my private papers. Once, she picked up an envelope, took out the contents, and then asked me about it. (It was a wedding invitation.) Recently, I spent over an hour hiding things before they arrived to visit. To my chagrin, she asked me about the contents of a notepad that she had pulled out from under a few books. The text referred to a matter told to me confidentially regarding a position I hold. Please help. I don't want to never invite them again. How should I handle this?
A: It sounds as if your sister-in-law should apply for a job with the NSA. Tell her directly that there's a problem: "Sue, I love having your family over to visit and use the pool, however, I can't continue to invite you if you continue to go through my personal items. I don't want to have to hide my papers in my own home, but if you don't stop snooping, I'm afraid the visits will have to stop."
Q. Kids?: Do you think everyone who has kids, and is successful at raising kids, "knows" that they really, really want kids when they have them? My husband and I have a wonderful relationship, he would be a great father, and we are likely able to financially care for a child. The problem is me. My parents didn't really want kids but had us anyway, and their apathy toward kids showed when raising us. I'm afraid that I'm too selfish; I'm afraid that the child could have a disability that I am not prepared for; I'm afraid that I'll be a bad parent. I also am just not sure that I even want a kid. It's not that I'm against having one; I'm just not gung ho about it, probably because of my fears. Do you have any thoughts or advice?
A: I know I'm running this letter after one about an abusive mother, but I assure you that even if you grew up with lousy parents, you are not condemned to repeat their mistakes. The fact that you are concerned about this shows that you have the insight and potential to be a good parent, if you choose to have children.
When letters like yours come up, it's hard for me to be objective because I had unhappy parents and a fear of having children. Yet having my daughter is the most wonderful experience and adventure of my life. If you truly don't want to have children, that's fine. But don't let the misery of your own parents rob you of the potential joy a child could bring.
Q. Forgetting Your Birthday: Maybe this isn't such a big deal, but I am totally miffed. My brother and wife, who live a few miles from me, have forgotten my birthday again. I don't want a gift, but a call or e-mail would be nice. They are on Facebook, and it definitely stated it was my birthday and my wall was filled with notes from my friends and even some of my kid's friends wishing me happy birthday. My son says I should say something. I'm afraid that as hurt and mad as I am, I would make things worse. What do you think? P.S. I'm 44, and my parents are dead, so I can't exactly have my mom call and remind him.
A: Sure, a call or e-mail would be nice, but you're not 4; you're 44. Some siblings continue to make a deal out of each other's birthdays; some can't even remember the dates once they're all out of the house. If you otherwise have a decent relationship with brother and sister-in-law, just be happy that so many people sent you their best wishes and appreciate that your brother has many good qualities, but remembering birthdays isn't one of them. It's a mistake to turn your Facebook page into a place to keep tabs of who's not keeping sufficient tabs of your milestones.
Q. Manners, Grooming, Co-Workers: I am a young black woman who enjoys wearing my hair in natural styles—braids, twists, and the occasional afro. When I do, co-workers, acquaintances, and sometimes people I don't even know come up and make comments on the new style, followed by a good pat, tug, etc., on my hair. How can I explain that I DON'T want to be touched, without being as rude as they are? Comments like "Please don't do that again" are usually met with hurt looks and bewilderment or "Oh, but it's so fun!"
A: Complimenting someone on a change in hairstyle is one thing; sticking your mitts in it because that seems like a "fun" thing to do is another. If the touchers are people you know, and one, "Please don't touch my hair," doesn't work, explain briefly and firmly that touching your hair is a violation of your personal space—surely they themselves don't want co-workers putting their hands into their hair—and that you hope you don't have to have this conversation again. As for strangers, feel free to step back and say, "Get your hands off me, now!"
Q. Party Pooper Again: I'll say something to my friend's husband to try and get help for the kids. My friend will just defend her and say how hard she has it and make excuses for her. The oldest may be in school; I don't know details, but I do know she's had issues in her life. I still don't think that's a reason to take it out on your kids. My friend's husband is the one who eventually diffused the situation and made her stop yelling and leave the party.
A: Thanks for following up on this—it's the right thing to do. Having hard times is not an excuse for taking it out on the kids, but it is a good way to perpetuate generations of misery.
Q. Addiction: Help! I'm addicted to advice columns. I read them every day and try to find more and more to read. Sometimes I won't leave the house for hours because I'm waiting for a chat like this one. What should I do?
A: This doesn't sound like a problem to me!
Since this chat is now over, my advice is to step away from the computer for a while and resume your own life—until the next chat.
Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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